Sergio Perez's triumph at F1's biggest race, the Monaco Grand Prix, has seen him welcomed into the title race with open arms by fans and pundits alike.
The Mexican driver has closed the gap between himself and Max Verstappen to just 15 points, and is now within touching distance of Charles Leclerc in second.
Perez's recent run of results has helped whet the appetite for what could now become a three-horse race for the championship – but is he really a threat to Verstappen's title defence?
There is no doubt that since Perez joined Red Bull ahead of the 2021 season, it is Verstappen who has enjoyed the better results, both in qualifying and in the race.
Their qualifying battle in 2021 resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Dutchman, who crushed Perez by lining up ahead of him on the grid at 19 of the 20 races in which neither driver received a grid drop penalty.
The average gap between their best qualifying lap times over the season was 0.5 seconds in favour of Verstappen, as he cemented his place as the team's clear dominant driver.
However, during the 2022 season, Perez's qualifying performances have already taken a big step, with the Mexican having beaten Verstappen in both Monaco and Saudi Arabia, two events at which he also got ahead of his Ferrari rivals to claim pole position.
The shift has resulted in Christian Horner suggesting that Red Bull's RB18 suits Perez better than their 2021 entry, while Jos Verstappen has criticised the team for building a car more suited to their second driver.
But the time advantage still remains with Verstappen, who boasts an average qualifying lap time that is 0.3 seconds faster than Perez's: a healthy gap.
On race day
After seven races of the 2021 season, Perez found himself counting a 47 point gap to Verstappen (84 to 131); one year on and that gap is now at just 15 points (110 to 125).
Furthermore, should the Mexican place on the podium at the upcoming Azerbaijan Grand Prix, he will have matched both his 2021 wins and podiums total after just eight races.
But how have the time gaps fared between the two drivers during races in 2022?
At the season opener in Bahrain, Perez was roughly 15 seconds behind Verstappen when the Safety Car was summoned on Lap 45, after which both drivers were forced to retire. Similar events played out in Australia when, with Verstappen five seconds ahead of Perez, the Dutchman retired.
In Saudi Arabia, Perez was leading the Grand Prix with Leclerc and Verstappen in hot pursuit. But due to a badly-timed Safety Car, Perez fell back to P4, handing Verstappen victory.
The biggest gaps of all this season came in Imola, where Verstappen took the chequered flag an entire 16 seconds ahead of his teammate, and Miami, where the gap between the pair was at one stage at 30 seconds.
In Spain, things proved complicated. The gap between the duo at the finish line was at 13 seconds, with Verstappen allowed to pass Perez (on an alternate strategy) without a fight before the Mexican driver pitted in search of a late fastest lap.
And at Monaco little could be learned about the gap between the two drivers, with Perez – who benefitted from a clean out-lap during the pit-stop phase – allowed to jump both Ferrari cars and lead a train across the finish line.
But overall, Verstappen remains the dominant driver, even if the points gap suggests the margin is only narrow.
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What next for Verstappen vs Perez?
There can be no doubt that Perez has taken a step forward in performance – but that is not to say that Verstappen has fallen backwards since last season's title glory.
Jos Verstappen's comments suggest that Verstappen is not yet entirely comfortable behind the wheel of the bigger, heavier RB18, which is lacking front-end grip compared to its predecessor.
However, he has led the team to four wins from seven races in 2022 and still holds a lead in the F1 standings, despite being left with plenty of homework to do.
The RB18 has played more into the hands of Perez than the 2021 challenger, yet Verstappen still has time to grow into his seat.
Perez is deserving of the compliments he has received during the early rounds of the new season, but must now prove that his Monaco victory can be replicated if he is to become a concern for Verstappen.
F1 Podcast: Was F1's cautious start to Monaco an insult to the drivers' abilities?
RacingNews365.com F1 journalists Dieter Rencken and Michael Butterworth discuss the Monaco Grand Prix, and reflect on whether decisions made by the Race Director were overly cautious.